America First?

by Berry Friesen (November 26, 2016)

“Imagine there are no countries / It isn’t hard to do 
Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too.”
John Lennon, “Imagine,” (1971) 

Starting in late 1992 and continuing for nearly five years, I filled a senior management role at an international NGO (Mennonite Central Committee), which had programs and partners in around 50 countries.  Because of that role, I became an occasional participant in two significant conversations.

The first had to do with an emerging consensus within Western governments, academia, the think tanks and the media that Islam was “the new Communism” and a serious threat to world peace.  Generally, the people with whom I worked regarded such a view to reflect political propaganda. In other words, those raising alarm about “the Islamic threat” were manufacturing a new bogeyman to keep people afraid and focused on their need for protection by the state's military capacity.

Thus, our international programming shifted toward countries where Muslims were the leading population group and toward points of engagement with Islam.

The second important conversation focused on neo-liberalism, the global effort to reduce regulatory, market and cultural barriers to international investment and trade.   Our field staff living around the world generally opposed this effort to “liberalize” the economic order because they perceived it to place local, emerging businesses and enterprises in direct competition with sophisticated, highly capitalized Western corporations.  This competition disrupted local economies, stripped local communities of social capital, and often left “little people” bereft.

But in the headquarters setting where I worked, many supported neo-liberalism because it seemed to go hand-in-hand with ideas we supported:  minimizing the importance of political borders, opening Western markets to goods from the East and South, a stance of engagement with the world and an openness to other cultures and perspectives.   Generally, we were skeptical of nation-centered patriotism, but we supported a view that emphasized human similarities and interconnectedness.  As far as we could see back then, neo-liberalism, globalization and multi-culturalism all fit together.

Because of this lack of consensus, our international programming did not respond to neo-liberalism with focus and vigor.

During the nearly 25 intervening years, those two important conversations have played out in thousands of events and developments.  The details are important, impacting the lives of billions of people.  But in the main, the patterns emerging back during the early ‘90s have been cemented firmly into place.

Through the criminal conspiracy known as 9/11, we all feel viscerally the threat of Islam. In response, the US-led empire has caused the deaths of two million brown-skinned persons and destroyed a half-dozen societies.  No one calls this response “racist;” few recognize the state-based terrorism it entails.  It’s just perceived to be part of the tragic way the world works now.

Through NAFTA and subsequent international trade agreements, neo-liberalism has opened the world to the reign of Wall Street.  Capital flows seamlessly into every nook and cranny of the globe where there is a marginally better profit to be made, washing away bonds and commitments based in ethnic, religious and national loyalties.  Few perceive this response to be imperialistic, few perceive the moral hollowing-out it entails. Neo-liberalism is thought to be as much part of the created order as gravity itself; morality has nothing to do with it.

An economic elite has prospered like never before under this new orthodoxy.  Those associated with Wall Street and the financial markets have led the way, but people with an advanced degree and a white-collar link to the economy have generally done pretty well. Traditional job sectors have suffered, including those in the West.  If you are blue collar and without a college degree in the West, life entails working one or two dead-end jobs, expecting your spouse to do the same, enjoying the cheap stuff on sale at Wal-Mart, and providing sons and daughters for wars against Muslims that inexplicably always end in failure.

Brexit and support for Trumpism are acts of blue collar resistance to this script.

They call for a return to a worldview in which patriotism is important, national boundaries mean something, you care for neighbors near before you care for neighbors far away, business entities and other institutions serve the communities that gave them birth, and public sector leaders serve the people who elected them, not the abstract interests of money.

To all who call these acts of resistance “racism” and “xenophobia,” Brexit and Trumpism raise the middle finger.  “Don’t you dare slander putting one’s neighbors first, putting one’s country first.  I remember a time when money wasn't our god.  That you don’t remember only demonstrates how morally hollow you’ve become.”

None of this is meant to say that a Trump Administration will break the stranglehold 9/11 and neo-liberalism have achieved over our lives and imaginations.

All it says is that the human spirit is rebelling against the morally impoverished worldview ruling us. And in that rebellion, there is a glimmer of light.

(Nov. 26 update:  Michael Hudson explains the moral underpinning of classical economics via two interviews at the Real News Network, here and here.)